Let’s Be Honest: The Online Environment in the Context of the Movement Experience

KStudd May 8, 2020

Teaching online – specifically offering somatic experiences for students that are intended primarily as somatic practice, is problematic on multiple levels. This needs further discussion I believe.

In this discussion I am not addressing classes that are not primarily focused on creating a somatic awareness and experience. For example, a dance class that has a different foregrounded intent (although clearly of course, can be framed as a somatic experience.) I also acknowledge that there are classes and courses that are very well suited to online education.

It is rather the plethora of online movement offerings and the trend to switching from the embodied classroom experience to the virtual environment due to the current situation that I want us to address more deeply and reflect on. This is the purpose of this missive.

The somatic educational experience is generally focused on awareness of an individual’s sensations and this in turn can often be a trigger for feelings and thoughts. This process involves awakening or deepening conscious awareness of emotions or thinking patterns. Indeed, this can be a fundamental goal of the experience – i.e. a deeper access to one’s Inner experience and bringing it into conscious awareness in order to better understand it or to find other possibilities etc.

In a real time /real space educational environment – what I will call the embodied classroom – vs the virtual classroom, the teacher or facilitator of the experience can, and should, and generally does monitor the situation. In other words, they “read the room”, or in LBMS parlance – read the Dynamosphere. The teacher can go back and forth between Direct attention and Indirect attention in the environment of the embodied classroom. This facilitates the Rhythm of Individual and Group and Self and Other that is dynamically in play. The teacher also has ways that they are self-monitoring (more about this later). In this way they monitor the whole – the group as well as individuals within the group and themselves.

This brings me to what has become (at least for me) a huge concern regarding the efficacy and responsibility – and do I dare mention it – the ethics – of online teaching that need more attention than I have generally seen deeply discussed.

I will address this from a story of my own experience – so a bit of heuristic research if you will in this subject matter.

I recently was a participant in an online somatic education type of class. The instructor was working from the embodied metaphors of our organs to engage the participants inner experience (NB this was not a BMC class as the experience was framed as a Fundamental Principle of Core Support). Engaging through an embodiment of metaphor was how I understood the essence of the experience of what was being suggested that we participants explore. We were directed to explore activating our movement from the heart. As soon as I began to engage with this experience, I immediately realized that my heart was frozen – immobile and I felt that I was a “heartless” person. I felt that the only movement available to mobilize from this place was in the action of Retreating and Enclosing. A sadness overwhelmed me, and tears streamed down my face… I hope you can appreciate the vulnerability that I choose to reveal here and why I think this is important to do here.

Now I am not a newbie in experiencing how my own activation of the movement of self can be very revealing and take one to a very deep place. So, I had experience and understanding of this somatic emotional release/response. But what if I did not? What about those with a history of depression that such an experience triggers? Just as I am often disturbed when I see that someone leads a breathing exercise without any real recognition of what it can potentially trigger (yet another topic for further discussion) I find myself questioning what do we teachers need to articulate when we engage in leading these experiences. Particularly when we cannot actually be fully present, but only can be partially present such as in the context of online somatic experience classes.

The teacher of this class had no way to actually observe that this was my response. And this reality made me reflect upon my own teaching experiences in the classroom when I have observed that a student was “being moved” in this way or had shut down or walked away or given some other sign that I observed – such as leaving the room, stopping participation or crying, etc.

In such situations I make a decision about how or if to connect to the individual. I may choose to simply be a witness and hold the space, or I may inquire if they need some support or assistance. Or I might ask someone else to check in with them. Or I may wait until a break and take them aside or, or, or … The point is that I am in a much better place to make a decision as to what could be supportive of their experience and supportive of the goals of the class that I am leading.

Now just take a moment to reflect on the practice of “muting” the participants in Zoom sessions – a necessary evil? Hmmmm

So, let us be honest – this ability to adequately respond is VERY LIMITED in the virtual classroom setting. Now I am not suggesting that we not have virtual online classes. We should. These they offer many possibilities for helping to connect us and to bridge our alone experience with others.

But let us also REALLY acknowledge the problems and limitations in the online medium in somatic educational interaction. In addition to the somatic emotional response aspect that I illustrated through the example of my personal experience, there are many other aspects of this virtual learning that also need to be addressed. This includes the lack of touch. Those of us who teach embodied practices often facilitate action and connect through intentional touch. This is NOT possible in the virtual classroom. Much more can and needs to be said about this. I am also very distressed at all the articles that I have recently seen as part of the practice of social distancing suggesting that we “do away with the handshake” and instead adopt the bow. Those writing these articles are well meaning but generally, in my estimation, have no real understanding of movement, including the action of touch and so they should not be opining about the significance of actions when they are not experts. We are – and we should make this clear – another topic for long discussion …

Then there is the interrupted phrasing that seems too often happen in the virtual environment of interaction. Sometimes this is due to the technology, but also it is due to a much more impaired ability of the participants to read the signals of interaction through the screen.

There are the aspects of technology that can be frustrating of course – the tech itself can be problematic in poor connections impairing seeing and hearing and the glitchy and unnerving aspects of time when there is a lag or a freeze. These can be minor irritants, or they can be quite more and contribute to stress and stress as we know, is often a process of accumulation. Tech stress is something that cannot be simply dismissed – as it is another “straw” on the proverbial back of the camel.

Many have spoken about Zoom fatigue and how exhausted this type of teaching is. We need to have a much more robust conversation about this phenomenon. Clearly the Exertion/Recuperation is out of balance – let’s use our considerable skills to name why and to share this with the world. I believe that in interacting through the screen there is much less ability to self-regulate by looking away, attending to self, shifting attention from group to individual – all this becomes “out of whack”. – This can be ameliorated perhaps to some extent by better practices. However, the medium itself is NOT conducive to the balance that is much more readily available in the environment of the embodied classroom. And this needs to be emphatically made clear.

I recognize the need and reality of online teaching, but I do think we need a more thoughtful and measured response and approach as I fear that this can become a panacea. Particularly when it is put into practice as an economic response to crisis and not foregrounding the intent of the educational training in somatic practice. There is certainly a great deal of – jumping on the band wagon of accessing band width in promoting education going on I see – and this bears reflection from this community.